Pet Sounds, Smile and…That Lucky Old Sun?

Did you know that Brian Wilson and his Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks have prepared a new song-cycle, which premiered in London earlier this month?

That’s big news for music fans, but it seems to be coming in a little under the radar.  Here’s some of what had Andrew Hickey had to say:

The suite starts with a slow, soulful arrangement of the title song, with contrapuntal vocals somewhere between the old Beach Boys song He Come Down and Brian’s arrangement of Ol’ Man River, before bursting into the Shortenin’ Bread riff Brian has based so much of his music on. The band start singing “Ooh mow mama mama holy hallelujah” – a vocal line that Brian first mentioned in an interview thirty years ago – and the piece proper begins.

Is That Lucky Old Sun any good? I truly have no idea. It’s too complex a piece, and too multi-layered, and the performance of it too bound up in personal expectations, for any kind of judgement to be made on one hearing. But in a sense, the question doesn’t matter. That Lucky Old Sun is exciting – in a way that no-one could have expected. This is the work of a 65-year-old man. 65 year old men don’t make exciting music. Paul McCartney’s new album might be quite pleasant, but he knows no-one’s going to remember him as ‘the man who made Memory Almost Full‘, and it shows.

Brian Wilson appears not to have given up hope that he’ll be remembered as ‘the man who made That Lucky Old Sun‘, and it’s just about possible that he might. While in some ways this new work bears comparison to the McCartney album, at heart it couldn’t be more different. While both have lyrics looking back from the end of a life and recapping themes of old songs, in the case of That Lucky Old Sun they’re working in tension against the music, which is overwhelmingly energetic, inspired, throwing off ideas like there’s a million more out there to get to in a hurry.

Like I said earlier, this may well be a failure – I’m just not willing to trust my own judgement based on one emotionally-charged live performance – but if it is it’s a glorious, fantastic mess of a failure, the kind of failure one might expect from an artist a third of Wilson’s age. And I suspect it isn’t.

The fact is, some of the greatest creative geniuses in pop music have…gotten old. It happens.  But that doesn’t mean they’re out of ideas necessarily.

Sometime in the past 10 or 20 years, a consensus formed that the greatest genius of the incredibly fertile rock music era was Brian Wilson.  After a long hiatus for reasons well-documented, Wilson returned to active status about 10 years ago, performing his old hits, completing the unfinished Smile, and writing songs.  The pop music world treats him as a relic, but what if he’s not?  Can he top “Good Vibrations?”

2 thoughts on “Pet Sounds, Smile and…That Lucky Old Sun?

  1. I don’t know if anyone can top “Good Vibrations.” When I was a kid I only knew it as a Top 40 oldie and a Sunkist jingle, but man, the thing is just amazing. What beats Carl’s haunting lilt in those first few seconds of each verse? The “Smiley Smile/Wild Honey” CD has bonus outtakes of the “Good Vibrations” sessions…really great stuff.

    As far as the new stuff goes, Brian doesn’t have to top “Good Vibrations” to be a relevant, enduring artist. Even his off stuff is better than most people’s A game, even now.

    Thanks for this post…it’s good to see Brian getting his due.

  2. I certainly consider That Lucky Old Sun in the same category as Pet Sounds and SMiLE. It’s an incredibly uplifting album. For me, it’s the perfect mix of Brian’s styles that he used throughout the years. It feels like a ‘closure’ album – there’s a quality to it, as if it’s wrapping up his entire career into a totally understandable whole rather than a series of disjointed events, musically and personally.

    He’s gone beyond all of his styles – no longer limited to them, but able to use them all freely. Take “Going Home” for example – if this came out in the 70’s it would’ve been a zany, never-ending ‘Brian hammering at his piano high on cocaine’ sort of thing, but here the feel breaks into a great, revealing verse that contrasts the chorus wonderfully.

    The interludes/narratives are also great, musically. Not to be overlooked as filler at all.

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